Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Night by Eli Wiesel. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.
These are all best-selling memoirs, authored by people who felt compelled to remember their past and write it all down. Just like these authors, we all have untold stories within us. Whether you want to leave a legacy, share a life lesson, make sense of a certain time in your life, or help others through your personal experiences, memoir writing is a wonderful gift—therapeutic for you and meaningful to your loved ones. No one wants friends or family to one day think: “I wish I would have asked them about that when I had the chance.”
So, why don’t more people take the time to capture their thoughts and feelings around major life events?
There are a few reasons, and they’re all misconceptions. You don’t have to be a professional writer to write a memoir, just write from the heart. You don’t have to be famous. And you don’t have to detail the entire storyline of your life—that’s an autobiography—and autobiographies can be a daunting idea, whether you’re 40 or 90.
According to Reader’s Digest, a memoir is your version of what happened during a specific time in your life; whereas an autobiography is the chronological telling of your experiences, with a timeline, focused on facts. A memoir is less formal, less encompassing, less obsessed with factual events, and more concerned with “an emotional truth toward a particular section of one’s life.” It’s mostly written from memory—not intended to be an accurate statistical report.
With memoir writing, facts and figures don’t tell the whole story. In order to make your experiences come to life, you also need to include feelings. According to author Bart Astor of Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, “No one else has had your experiences or reacted in the same way.” People connect with emotions, descriptions, dialogue, and personality. It’s YOUR story—no one can tell it the same as you. After you write it all down, your loved ones will want to read it!
But where do you begin?
- Start by reading memoirs. Just reading about another person’s experiences will help you understand more about tone and theme. A list of the top 50 memoirs can be found here.
- Think about the pivotal moments in your life. Which ones really mattered? (Remember, this isn’t your autobiography. You don’t have to write about the entirety of your life.)
- To get the words flowing, look at a photo that evokes a strong reaction. What do you hear, smell, feel, see? Repeat this process with a few different photos.
- Write the way you talk—in a conversational way. It’s more engaging and easier to read. (Don’t be too formal.) Be honest. It’s ok to show your flaws; everyone can relate to making mistakes.
- Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or quality. Just get it all down. You can fix it later.
- Believe in yourself!
If you feel like some of your memories are a little fuzzy, you can always include a disclaimer at the end saying: “These events are my memories. Others may remember events differently.”
If you still need inspiration, these questions might help get the creative juices flowing:
Where were you born? Was there anything unique about your birth?
What’s your earliest memory?
What toy do you most remember getting at Christmas?
Did you have any pets growing up?
What family vacation do you most remember from your youth?
Who was your favorite teacher? Why?
What was your favorite subject?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Were you in any extracurricular activities?
Who were your childhood friends?
What did you do for fun when you were young?
Did you get an allowance? How much? How did you earn it?
What was your first car?
Who were your high school friends?
What did you learn about yourself in high school?
Are you more like your mom or your dad? How?
When was the first time you saw your parents cry?
Who was your first crush?
Who was your first kiss?
Who was your first love?
What’s your favorite city to visit?
What’s the farthest from home you’ve traveled?
What impact has religion had in your life?
Did you go to college? What did you study?
What was the greatest success in your career?
What did you do with your first “big” paycheck?
What was the biggest sacrifice you ever made?
What time(s) in history will you always remember?
Name a time you were on top of the world.
Name a time you were overcome with sadness.
As a youth, did you break any bones? Need stitches?
What was your first job?
What was your favorite job?
Who were your role models when you were young?
What have you done that you never thought you’d do?
What do you know about your family history/heritage?
What’s your favorite holiday tradition? Why?
(If applicable): How did you meet your spouse? When did you know he/she was “the one?” What was your marriage proposal like?
Where was your wedding? How many guests attended? What did you serve? What do you remember about that day?
(If applicable): Tell me about the time(s) your kid(s) were born.
How would you describe your kids’ personalities? Grandkids?
What person most influenced you in life?
What makes you happy?
What’s your dream for future generations?
Now get to writing! Good luck!